Reduce prison numbers to minimise need for prison lockdowns
30th Aug 2021
The use of lockdowns to control the outbreak of COVID-19 in the state’s prison system is inhumane, amounts to solitary confinement and will cause serious harm to families of prisoners, says the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).
Instead the Government is urged to activate the COVID-19 Legislation Amendment (Emergency Measures) Act 2020 it passed in March last year which allows it to reduce the number of people in prison, following COVID-19 outbreaks in prison facilities.
“We are concerned about the impact of lockdowns on prisoners,” said Mr Greg Barns SC, criminal justice spokesperson, ALA. “Lockdowns mean that prisoners are confined to their cells for 22 to 24 hours a day. It is solitary confinement and used for any length of time will inevitably lead to unrest and frustration. It also means prisoners lose access to contact with families, programs and adequate health care.
“Lockdown means no education or rehabilitation programs, and an increased risk of mental harm. This creates an increasingly intolerable and unstable environment within prisons. We are particularly concerned about Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities given the high rates of First Nations people in NSW prisons.
“The prison system needs higher rates of vaccination and access to rapid testing, but the number of people in the system also needs to be reduced. Health experts around the world are recommending the responsible release of selected prisoners to reduce over-crowding and enable some physical distancing. This can be achieved by reducing unnecessary admissions and expediting prison release for select, low-risk offenders.
“Courts need to take the risk of infection in prison into account and show greater leniency with regard to bail. In the current circumstances, courts should not refuse bail for non-violent offences unless there has been demonstratable recent recidivism.
“NSW has the legislation in place to enable this to happen – it just needs to be activated.”
A report from the Department of Criminology at Oxford University released in March this year reveals the serious adverse impact of lockdowns on prisoners’ families, particularly children. The report notes: ‘This loss of contact has negatively impacted children’s relationships with their imprisoned parents and their mental and physical health and wellbeing. Children may not understand why contact has stopped and may blame themselves. The effects of this loss of contact and disruption to family relationships are likely to be long term and will affect family reunification and resettlement after imprisonment.’
“Reducing prison populations is the most effective way to avoid a serious outbreak of COVID-19 in our prison system, avoid lockdowns and protect inmates as well as prison staff and the broader community. Prisoners have the same rights to health and safety as everyone else,” said Mr Barns SC.
 Shona Minson, Centre for Criminology, University of Oxford: The impact of COVID-19 prison lockdowns on children with a parent in prison